As we way goodbye to 2021 and press onwards into the ninth generation of gaming, it is always nice to take a moment to be retrospective and reflect on the great gaming moments that last year gave to the gaming community as a whole. We were treated to some of the first games of the next gen, with games like It Takes Two, Resident Evil Village, Halo Infinite and Forza Horizons stealing the spotlight.
However, it’s not just the big names in the industry that have stolen the show this past year; it has also been a year filled with incredible indie projects that have been just as good, if not better, than the multi-million dollar projects within the industry.
There have been indie games that have provided rich worlds to explore, games that have taken the seemingly mundane and made presented them in a unique and profound way. Then there have been games that have been so awe-inspiring that they have blown most AAA games out of the water. All of which has been done with shoe-string budgets and with very small teams full of dedicated, passionate game designers.
However, you may be wondering what games within the indie sphere have really caught the eye of the gaming community. So with that in mind, we have come up with a comprehensive list detailing all of the best indie games released in 2021, allowing you to take note of the best games from this year to add to your collection and ensure that you don’t miss the quality titles out there. So without further delay, here is our best indie games of 2021 guide.
Before we get right into the indie game 2021 spotlight, we should probably discuss how we came to the decisions that we did and what qualifies each selection on this list to be deemed one of the best indie games released in 2021. So here is a list of criteria that all these games have to meet to be considered for this list:
- Firstly, the game must be considered an indie game. So that means all games on the list must be made on a modest budget, be produced by a relatively small team and not benefit from AAA backing.
- All games on this list will naturally have been released in 2021
- All games on this list should have an aggregate Metacritic score of at least 70%
- All games on this list must offer something genuinely unique and push the medium of indie gaming forward
- Developer: Iron Gate AB
- Genre: Survival Fantasy
- Metacritic score: TBA
We kick things off with the indie game that perhaps came as the biggest shocks of the year. Being a huge fan of survival games, I’m always open and receptive to new survival games. However, when I first saw Valheim, I wasn’t all that interested. It looked like your typical survival meets magical fantasy game.
Not to mention, this game isn’t the most visually or mechanically impressive of games from the outside looking in. However, after I got my hands on this one, did a deep dive and truly saw what this game had to offer, I am fully willing to admit I was wrong.
This game offers a vast open-world to explore, provides a survival sandbox full of wonder, multiple ways to play and also has so many intricate mechanics that keep the game interesting for hours upon hours. I’m not alone in this opinion, as this game burst onto the scene and spent many weeks at the top of the Steam most wanted list. It’s a Viking themed survival title that really delivers, and you should dive right into this one as soon as you can.
- Developer: Witch Beam
- Genre: Relaxing Simulator
- Metacritic score: 87%
Then we move on to a game that epitomizes the statement we made earlier about turning the seemingly mundane into a profound experience. Unpacking is a game that is literally about Unpacking.
You play through a series of levels where you play through stages of your early life right through to the latter stages of your life, unpacking your personal items and placing them in the perfect place each time. It’s a very relaxing and cathartic experience that sees you learn more and more about your character with each move.
You’ll travel through the various stages of their life, and the items that you unpack will tell subtle stories which will see you grow with your character. Plus, the UI and mechanics of this game are so simple and so intuitive that just about any player can jump into this one and play through the entire experience in a matter of hours.
This breakout title is the epitome of a chill, relaxing time within the world of gaming, so if you are looking for a game that isn’t all about shooting and killing your enemies but instead about the trials and tribulations of normal life, Unpacking is that game.
Check out our honest review of Unpacking.
- Developer: 12 Minutes
- Genre: Time Loop Puzzle Game
- Metacritic score: 76%
The last two years within the game industry have been dominated by a new genre of game that has suddenly seen a lot of love, the Roguelike game genre. Games like Hades, Returnal and Deathloop have been great examples of this. However, they all have a very combat-heavy approach to this game format.
Well, Twelve Minutes decides to take a much more narrative-driven and explorative approach to this type of game. In this title, you will play through a twelve-minute snippet of time and within this time, you must alter the events to find out new secrets, save your partner from certain death and change the course of time for good.
This game is meticulously crafted, has excellent voice acting provided by huge names like James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley and Willem Dafoe, and plays much like a time loop heavy, indie version of the popular title Heavy Rain. This one is a game made for you gamers that love to get your brain in gear. So if you want a more cerebral gaming experience that tests your problem-solving skills to the limit, be sure to play Twelve Minutes.
- Developer: Ember labs
- Genre: Adventure
- Metacritic score: 80%
Next up, we have a game that you could easily mistake for a new Pixar film, but we assure you, this is a property that the gaming industry can claim as their own, so back off Hollywood. Kena: Bridge of Spirits sees you take control of the titular Kena, a spirit guide who helps lost souls find peace and cross over to the other side when they pass away.
Throughout this game’s narrative, you and the adorable Rot Wisps will help countless lost souls find peace, restore the broken and cursed lands to their former glory, and you get to buy hats for your little Rot Wisps, which is about as cute as it gets.
This game is a classic action-adventure game that is perfect for all ages. The combat is fun and fast-paced but never too taxing. The exploration in this game is rewarding, but the storyline is relatively linear to appeal to all types of gamers. Plus, this game has the best soundtrack of the year, hands down.
It’s a visual masterpiece; it offers auditory bliss, the gameplay is a joy to behold, and this all comes from a developer that has never made a game up until this point. They have knocked it out of the park on the first pitch, and for that reason, this is one to get your hands on soon.
- Developer: Four Quarters
- Genre: Four Quarters
- Metacritic score: 84%
Maybe it’s just me, but when I hear the term ‘intuitive card system’ mentioned as a game is gearing up for a release, this is an immediate red flag. It happened to be with Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories all those years ago, and more recently, Back 4 Blood did the same. However, sometimes this can be done extremely well, like Gwent in The Witcher III, to a lesser extent, Caravan in Fallout New Vegas and, the card system present in Loop Hero.
This game sees you build and use a deck of magic cards to create loops for your knight to explore, gather resources for your Survivor’s Camp and eventually fight back to end the tyrannic reign of The Lich. This game offers an experience not too far removed from the likes of FTL: Faster Than Light while offering enough new content and ideas to feel fresh and unique.
So if you want another time loop roguelike because we haven’t had enough of those this year, then Loop hero is another one to add to the list.
- Developer: Acid Nerve
- Genre: Action Adventure
- Metacritic score: 85%
Death is a horrible thing, but have you ever taken the time to think about how the Grim Reaper might feel about reaping souls every single day. Well, this is a theme that Death’s Door really leans into, providing a truly profound adventure and a riveting story. In this game, you play as a Crow.
In this universe, crows do all the heavy lifting when it comes to reaping the souls of the dead, and you are just on your usual beat when a soul thief nabs your assigned soul, and then the story unravels from there as you chase down your lost soul.
The game offers excellent combat, stylish visuals that are dark and gloomy, yet vibrant and eye-catching somehow and the world you explore where death doesn’t exist is so perplexing and interesting that we reckon you will stop to smell every single overgrown rose on the way to the finale of this superb game. So what are you waiting for? Track down your lost soul and teach those who have never witnessed death how it feels.
- Developer: Shed-Works
- Genre: Action Adventure
- Metacritic score: 76%
Indie games have always been great at offering subtle narratives with grandiose themes like self-discovery or enlightenment. However, there are some games that do it better than most. A personal favourite of mine is the incredible indie title, Journey, and it may be quite bold, but I would say that Sable is a game that offers a similar experience to the groundbreaking 2012 title.
In this game, you will travel through a beautiful open world that is animated in a broken 40FPS style seen in Into the Spiderverse and aim to discover what it means to be a true nomad in this ancient world full of new-age technology.
The gameplay for this game is largely made up of exploration, some puzzle-solving, and a brilliantly woven narrative that ties it all together. The game is beautifully paced so that the lulls and the scenes where you travel across the entry dunes on your glider seem all the more special. This game is a truly incredible, short-lived epic that you need to witness for yourself, so do yourself a favour and pick up Sable for yourself.
Little Nightmares II
- Developer: Tarsier Studios
- Genre: Dark Side-Scrolling Platformer
- Metacritic score: 82%
It’s a little hard to justify this one as an indie title, as this series does have the backing of Bandai Namco. However, due to the nature of the developer being a tight-knit team and this being a sequel to a certified breakout indie game, we are going to allow it. This game serves as a prequel to the first game in the series and takes all the fantastically bleak gameplay that we witnessed in the first game, tweaking small details to offer new puzzles, new mechanics and, of course, a wealth of new, gruesome bosses to evade.
The game offers more of the same seen in the first game, and while it doesn’t have the same profound effect that the first game did when it burst on the scene, it is still a very refined dark puzzle platformer.
It keeps the same Tim Burton-esque art direction, offers quite a lot of genuinely terrifying and unsettling moments, catering to the horror fans out there and best of all, it’s a relatively short title that knows not to overstay its welcome. So if you want to dive back into the gloomy world of Little Nightmares, now you can.
- Developer: Clockwork Bird
- Genre: Social Deduction
- Metacritic score: 81%
There have been few games that have really nailed the art of social deduction and even fewer that have offered an intelligent enough AI or writing to support a single-player experience. The only game that really comes to mind that nails this would be Papers, Please.
However, we can now confirm that there is another game out there that offers a social deduction experience worth playing. In Silicon Dreams, you play as the interrogation officer that gets sent rogue androids, and your job is to extract their secrets, use their emotions against them and ultimately decide if they are fit for purpose or need to be decommissioned.
This is a game that begins as a rather rudimentary job. However, as this game rolls along, the moral quandaries of wiping out these androids become a harder and harder task to get right, and your decisions will lead to a ripple effect that could be catastrophic. This is a brilliantly designed and presented game which we reckon you will love. So if you feel like you are a natural detective, test your skills with this game.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale
- Developer: Greg Lobanov
- Genre: Adventure
- Metacritic score: 90%
How do I describe Chicory? Well, a colourful adventure would definitely be apt, but it’s much more than a beautifully presented game. This game sees you take control of Chicory; the superstar artist’s number one fan who has accidentally taken his magic brush and will need to use its magical powers to traverse the world in search of the prolific artist.
This magical brush will allow you to reveal secret paths, paint the monochrome world like a colouring book and solve cleverly designed puzzles to ultimately deliver the brush to its rightful owner.
The gameplay is some of the most varied that you will find in a simple indie game of this nature. The presentation, as mentioned, is absolutely sublime, and surprisingly, the narrative of this game is well-paced and will keep the attention of the player from start to finish. So if you want something that’s really out there, but in all the right ways, Chicory is a brilliant one to grab for your collection.
- Developer: Daniel Mullins Games
- Genre: Deck Builder
- Metacritic score: 84%
If you aren’t aware of the work of Daniel Mullins, let us fill you in. His catalogue of games that he has produced reads like a long list of the weirdest games out there. However, that is not a criticism; in fact, it’s the reason why when a game he produces hits the shelves, we tend to flock to his latest mad invention to see what he has come up with. This time, it’s a horror meets card game called Inscryption.
In this game, players will need to brace themselves for a nightmare of a time in this horror-filled escape room scenario where the only means of escape is mastering the card system before you, thinking like a master tactician, and not getting too distracted by the unsettling surprises that await you throughout this experience. It’s unlike any card game you have ever played, and you can take that to the bank. So for something new and damn scary, this is a perfect fit.
Buddy Simulator 1984
- Developer: Not a Sailor Studios
- Genre: Top-Down RPG
- Metacritic score: 88% (based on user reviews)
If you have ever played the Earthbound series, then we reckon that this game will be right up your alley. Buddy Simulator 1984 is probably one of the lesser-known games on this list but one I personally advocate for. In this game, you begin by interacting with a piece of AI software from the mid-eighties. A primitive piece of tech that tries to entertain you as best it can, beginning with simple games like pong or rock, paper, scissors. However, as the game goes on, the AI will constantly up its game to appease you.
Before you know it, you will be playing through full-scale RPG segments of this game, similar to that of Earthbound, as the game moves into some darker themes and you begin to question if the AI’s intentions are wholesome or malicious. It’s a wonderful, minimalist adventure that deserves more recognition than it got upon release. So please go some way towards fixing that and play this one today.
Related: Best RPG Indie Games
- Developer: Neon Curve
- Genre: Action RPG
- Metacritic score: 73%
Don’t you just love when an indie game outshines its AAA counterpart? Now we will admit, there is no comparison between this title and Cyberpunk 2077 for scale and scope. However, if you are looking for the better overall Cyberpunk game, we would have to point you toward The Ascent. This title offers gameplay not too dissimilar to the original Dragon Age, allowing players to explore a rich, Cyberpunk universe and try to stop the world from descending into anarchy.
In this game, your role is to clean up the messes made by the global corporations and conglomerates that have driven the population into a frenzy. So you must stop the multitude of gangs and other entities that intend to capitalise on the chaos. It’s an excellent story, a brilliant game both visually and mechanically, and if you haven’t played this one, then you are missing out.
- Developer: Mechanical Head Studios
- Genre: Action Platformer
- Metacritic score: 82%
If you liked Shovel Knight, then you will love this title in equal measure. Cyber Shadow comes from the same studio and takes a lot of the key aspects of Shovel Knight that made it great, then adapts the overall gameplay to provide a much more fast-paced adventure with new battle mechanics and a new, technological world to explore.
Thanks to a laundry list of great new perks and powerups within this game. With the interesting new themes, the tough new bosses and the overall difficulty that is nothing to be taken lightly, this game serves as another modern indie classic. Be sure to check this one out when you get a chance.
- Developer: Feral Cat Den
- Genre: Point and Click
- Metacritic score: 77%
It’s rare that you can make a point and click game that appeals to the masses, especially in this era of modern gaming where twenty-five-hour main quest lines and expansive open worlds are part and parcel of the gaming experience. However, when you deliver an overall product that is so outlandish and beautiful as Genesis Noir, then the gaming community has to stop and take notice.
In this game, you play as No Man, who gets wrapped up in a cosmic love affair, causes the big bang and then has to explore the cosmos to either stop the world from existing in the name of love or allow something bigger than himself to happen. Yes, it’s as weird and wonderful as it sounds.
It’s all presented in a 1950’s noire style which is simply breathtaking from start to finish. The gameplay is simple but effective, the narrative is gripping, but honestly, it’s the fact that this game presents itself in such a way that it furthers the argument that games should indeed be considered an art form that will keep you engaged with this one. It’s wonderfully self-indulgent, a spectacular concept, and if you haven’t played this one, now is the time.
- Developer: Studio Inky Fox
- Genre: Adventure
- Metacritic score: 82%
When it comes to indie titles, sometimes it is the sheer simplicity of a game that gives it a unique charm that no big-budget title can replicate. That is very much the case with reference to Omno. In this game, you will traverse an ancient land solving puzzles, meeting incredible, majestic creatures and uncovering secrets of the forgotten world.
This game is truly a joy to behold as you traverse the varied biomes of this world, sliding, gliding and exploring to your heart’s content. This game may not have a complex narrative, and it may not be a blockbuster title in terms of visual splendour. However, this game oozes charm, offers a wide variety of mechanics that are fun exemplified and for all these reasons and more, we would highly recommend Omno.
Lawn Mowing Simulator
- Developer: Skyhook Games
- Genre: Simulation
- Metacritic score: 72%
Here is yet another game that offers a profound experience from mundane chores, adapting to offer a cathartic and chill gaming experience that inexplicably just works. Lawn Mowing Simulator is exactly what it sounds like. In this game, you play as a humble lawnmower who runs their own business, and your goal is to go around cutting people’s grass.
It may sound like a dull concept, but when you get down to it and hop on your ride along mower, you can really see why so many gamers have taken to this indie title.
As you progress through the game, you will be assigned bigger jobs, be able to acquire better models of lawnmowers, and you will be able to add other aspects to your business. However, the real star of the show is the relaxing gameplay. This simplistic approach to gamifying what is basically a chore is amazing, and while it won’t be for everyone, we would urge you to give it a try.
- Developer: Something We Made
- Genre: Adventure
- Metacritic score: 80%
When a game artistically limits itself to a monochrome art style, it puts a lot of pressure on other areas of the game. It means that the core concept has to be completely unique; it means that the art style has to stand out in other ways, which is harder to do without the benefit of ere catching colours and the gameplay also has to take centre stage. Well, thankfully, Toem bet on itself, and that bet paid off.
In this game, you play as a budding young photographer in a whimsical cartoon world, and your goal is to alternate between a top-down view and through the eye of the camera lens to capture unique images and moments within the game.
If you love relaxing games that don’t ask too much of you other than to exist within the world and play at your leisure, then the hand-drawn world of Toem is exactly where you want to be. This is a modern pick up and play classic that is perfect for a lazy Sunday. So be sure to check out this one.
- Developer: Graceful Decay
- Genre: Puzzle-platform
- Metacritic score: 70%
Before I get into this one, I just want to say that even though this game ultimately let me down after boarding the indie hype train for its release, I still have to give it some props. I was very interested in Maquette before release, not only because of the incredible presentation, the narrative focus and the excellent voice acting, but mostly because of the core gameplay. You see, the puzzles within this game are designed using fractal generation.
This technique allows the game designer to create infinite repeating maps that are larger and smaller with each repetition. It’s quite hard to explain without literally witnessing it for yourself but safe to say, it leads to some puzzles that are real head-scratchers. I must admit that the end of the game really loses all the momentum the strong opening makes.
However, since this game is only a two-hour affair, I would still recommend it. So if you want a decent puzzle game that has one of the most unique concepts I’ve seen in a while within the puzzle genre, give this a blast.
- Developer: Picogram
- Genre: Adventure
- Metacritic score: 73%
Then lastly, we have Garden Story, another chill indie title that doesn’t take itself too seriously. We have seen indie developers try to siphon off some of the success that Eric Barone has seen with Stardew Valley, with Forager and Slime Rancher being perhaps the best attempts within the space to share in that success. However, Garden Story is perhaps the closest replica that we have seen, yet just different enough that it stands out in its own right.
This game sees you play as a sentient grape that needs to cut the invasive rot creatures down to size, gather resources to repair the village and connect with the community to restore the local area to its former glory. It wears its inspiration, Stardew Valley, on its sleeve, and quite frankly, it does it proud with a game that lets the player play at their own pace and, more importantly, play their own way. So for another Stardew style adventure, try Garden Story.
Question: What is The Indie Game of the Year?
Answer: A subjective question will always get a subjective answer and our personal pick for the year 2021 is the charming indie title, Unpacking. For its sheer simplicity, its relaxing and intuitive gameplay, its fun art style and its ability to tell a story without so much as a single word of dialogue, we have to give this one the top spot.
Question: What is the Best Way To Find New Indie Gems?
Answer: There are so many ways that you can find some great indie gems. Honestly, it’s all about where you look and how dedicated you are to finding them. Here are some of our tried and tested methods:
• Join indie Reddit communities
• Keep an eye on Steam Greenlight
• Regularly visit Itch.IO and support growing creators
• Dig deep into the digital sales
• Don’t be put off by that ‘early access’ tag
Question: Why are They Called Indie Games?
Answer: Indie is short for independent, which means that games that are truly indies are done by one small team. This means there is no corporate backing, no parent companies with huge budgets breathing down their neck. Usually, it is a handful of dedicated people who work tirelessly to get their product out the door. Heck, sometimes it is just one person creating entire games. Great examples of this include Fez, Stardew Valley and Undertale, to name a few.
Indie Gaming’s Cream of the Crop in 2021
As you can see from the information above, indie gaming is a field of the gaming industry that continues to deliver year after year and 2021 is no different. This past year has offered some of the most charming, unique and fun games the medium has ever seen and quite frankly, we are proud to give them the moment in the spotlight that they deserve. We hope that this guide serves you well and gives you a good idea of how to spend your gaming budget. Thanks for reading, everyone!